Before we get to yesterday’s games, first the big news from this afternoon. If the announcement that the worst team in the league is releasing their 11th player can ever truly be considered ‘big’. After 47 appearances, the Tulsa Shock finally decided that Marion Jones had served her purpose on their roster and cut her today, in order to sign backup center Abi Olajuwon. In the eyes of most WNBA fans it was about time, but some will still be sorry to see her go.
On a purely playing level, she never would’ve made a WNBA roster if her name wasn’t Marion Jones. She was a 34-year old rookie last year, who hadn’t played organised basketball in over ten years. People in that situation don’t make WNBA rosters. It’s hard enough to stick on a team when you’re coming out of college at 22 and have been working on your game for the previous decade. However, in fairness to Jones, she did improve as last season went on, and by the end of it she had at least become a vaguely serviceable end-of-the-bench guard. She wasn’t a complete joke as a WNBA player any more, and if you subscribe to +/- statistics, she even had a significantly positive impact when she was on the floor (no, you don’t want to take that too seriously).
The question I always had with Tulsa’s retention of Jones was where did they think they were going with her? Unless her presence on the floor for a few minutes per game and her work in the local community was seriously selling tickets and raising interest, it just didn’t make a lot of sense. A 35-year old basketball player who’s still very much a work-in-progress doesn’t make any sense for a WNBA team, especially a terrible team that won’t be any good for at least a couple of years. By the time this franchise is remotely competitive, Jones would be something like 37 or 38, at least. Did they think she was going to get better as she hit her late-30s, the age-range where nearly all professional athletes deteriorate dramatically? Plus it’s players who rely on their speed and athleticism – like Jones – who most commonly fall off a cliff in terms of performance as they get older. From a purely on-the-court perspective, it made no sense.
So that leaves us with what she meant to the Shock off the court. Did she sell tickets? Did she energise the crowd? Did she create interest in the franchise? All of these questions are difficult to answer, because it’s hard to quantify things like ‘interest’, but several local fans certainly felt she was worth keeping around. She drew cheers whenever she entered games. At the same time, how many people heard that she was on the roster, and decided that with those sort of gimmicks the Shock and the WNBA were basically a joke, and not worth their time? Or that they had no interest in supporting a team who were employing a known drug cheat? Personally I’m not sorry to see her go, because in an ideal world I’d like to see the WNBA rosters filled with the 132 best basketball players in the world. I’d like to see each of those spots decided on basketball skills, performance and potential, not the ability to inspire some half-hearted media coverage. Still, she certainly gave us all something to talk about for the last couple of years.
Olajuwon, by the way, is a mediocre backup center, based on her few appearances for Chicago last season. She’s slow, but at least she’s big, so maybe Jen Lacy won’t have to play too much center any more when Liz Cambage needs a rest. The other pathetically vital information, of course, is that she played her college ball at Oklahoma. After handing the franchise over to Nolan Richardson, drafting Amanda Thompson, trading for Andrea Riley, and then recently signing Kathy McConnell-Miller as an assistant coach, the Shock continue their path of desperately bringing in people with local ties. Or maybe it’s just cheaper if they’ve already got somewhere local to live and you don’t have to find them an apartment. In fairness, Olajuwon has been on the fringes of the league with other teams, so she’d be a justifiable pickup wherever the team was based, but it feels like yet another move motivated by more than a simple “who can help our basketball team” approach. It’d be really nice to see this franchise starting everything with that as the basis. Until that happens, they’re going to continue making mistakes.
Anyway, on to the basketball. After their own camp day less than 24 hours earlier, Atlanta got to fly up to Washington for the Mystics’ morning tip-off. While I’m sure they didn’t enjoy playing a back-to-back of early games, the Dream had finally managed to win two straight prior to this one, the first time they’d pulled that off all season. So piling on the games and keeping the momentum rolling probably wasn’t a bad idea. For the 3-10 Mystics it was a chance to try to build something from the remarkable 24-point comeback win over LA on Sunday night. Also they own Atlanta’s 2012 first-round draft pick, so any way they can lower the Dream’s chances of making the playoffs does them a favour.
With Sancho Lyttle still out due to her back injury, Coco Miller nursing an ankle sprain, and Courtney Paris in street clothes due to a strained calf suffered against Indiana the day before, the Dream were down to eight players for this game. Angel McCoughtry apparently decided it was her responsibility to make up for all three of her missing teammates. The first two Atlanta possessions featured McCoughtry going to the rim for a layup, and then McCoughtry breaking down the defense to create an easy layup for Erika de Souza. When Angel’s in this kind of mood – and it’s been all too rare this season – she’s very hard to stop.
Fortunately for Washington, they were playing pretty good basketball themselves at the other end. The giants that Atlanta have in the paint, like de Souza and Alison Bales, simply couldn’t deal with the mobility and skill of Crystal Langhorne. This looked like the Mystics team we saw in their first couple of games this season, when the Anosike/Langhorne partnership in the post seemed like it might be able to carry them to a reasonable number of wins. They were sliding Lang around, using her in lots of pick-and-rolls and off-ball screens, and she was repeatedly getting inside and behind Atlanta’s interior defense. Langhorne had 14 points in the first quarter alone, and she got it on six layups and a pair of free throws. She was ripping Atlanta to shreds inside, and it created a small Mystics lead of 22-19 at the end of the first.
Although the Mystics were taken out of their rhythm in the second quarter and got away from feeding Lang, it still felt like they’d played the stronger basketball in the first half. However with McCoughtry in attack mode, forcing her way to the line whenever she couldn’t convert the layup, and even starting to hit from outside once she was in her stride, Atlanta stayed right in the game. When Angel sank her final bucket of the half with two seconds left – taking her total to 20 – the Dream took a 39-38 lead into the break.
Washington did a lot of things right in that first half. They kept the turnovers down, only giving up four in the entire 20 minutes. They held the Dream to just five fastbreak points. But because Angel was having probably her best game of the season, and Langhorne wasn’t getting much help on the offensive end, they hadn’t managed to turn it into a lead.
Everything got harder in the second half at both ends. Angel simply couldn’t stay that hot, or continue getting as much help from the officials as she’d received in the first half. Washington were never going to keep the turnovers down as well as they had. The Mystics developed a lead when Langhorne finally got some support from her teammates, with Marissa Coleman especially stepping to the fore. When she’s on her game, Coleman has a pretty stroke from outside, and after a five-point first half she had 11 in the third quarter alone. Washington’s lead was as big as seven late in the third, but then Angel attacked again, finished the period with four straight, and we were tied back up at 63-63.
The fourth was neck-and-neck. Washington were packing the paint to cut off any room for McCoughtry, but the sheer size of de Souza, Bales and Sandora Irvin was giving Washington problems. Anosike and Langhorne are undersized in comparison, which leads to offensive rebounds and putbacks, especially once the shorter players are tired late in the game. At the other end, Washington were getting some unexpected offensive production from rookie guard Jasmine Thomas, who once again was playing well enough to keep veteran starter Kelly Miller on the bench in crunch time.
An Irvin putback tied the game at 78 with just under two minutes to play. Then that tiredness seemed to come into play on the offensive end for the Mystics. After working so hard all night, and finding it more and more difficult to score inside against Atlanta’s true bigs, Langhorne had migrated further away from the hoop. That led to a Lang jumper from only inches inside the three-point line on their next possession, which bounced away. At the other end, in stark contrast, the always-lively Armintie Price drove into the paint and hit a layup right over the top of the defense. After an Anosike turnover, Lindsey Harding repeated Price’s trick, spun straight into the lane, and hit a tough little jumper. Suddenly, Atlanta were up four with 40 seconds to play, and the game felt like it was done. In the end, Washington didn’t quite have the depth, the composure or the energy to close the game out. Even if the Dream were playing their second game in two days that tipped off before lunch.
It was another loss, but I honestly felt that this was one of Washington’s best performances of the season. Langhorne had 24 points and 10 rebounds, which was only a little disappointing because she scored 14 in the first ten minutes. Coleman’s shot was on. Thomas gave them something off the bench. They played solid team defense for most of the afternoon. The problem was they just came up a little short on talent, and they don’t have the backups to be confident that they can spell their starters. Plus they couldn’t do anything about McCoughtry – but then sometimes you just can’t.
A three-game winning streak for the Dream. At this rate, maybe they’ll want to play every game at noon. McCoughtry had her best offensive game of the season by miles, with 10-18 from the field and 11-17 from the free throw line adding up to 33 points. This was the McCoughtry that got everyone so excited last year – driving to the basket, constantly attacking, and actually making a few shots. The problems have arisen this year when she’s just missed and missed from outside, and shot her team out of games. Or when she hasn’t gotten the calls she felt she deserved, and ended up doing more whining than playing. If McCoughtry shoots 17 free throws, the Dream are going to win most of the time.
Lindsey Harding had her best road game of the year, after I pointed out how awful she’d been away from Philips Arena so far this year in yesterday’s column. Only two assists – the team only had 11 total, mostly because due to all of Angel’s one-on-one play – but 6-12 from the floor for 14 points is something they wouldn’t have gotten from Shalee Lehning last year. That’s what they brought Harding in for. Beyond the wins, the other good news for Atlanta is that Sancho Lyttle is supposedly expected back after the All-Star break, which will significantly strengthen their post game. Sandora Irvin did a nice job in this one backing up Bales and de Souza, but you don’t want to rely on that happening every night. If Angel can play something like this for more than one game, and Lyttle comes back resembling her usual self, the Dream have a winning run in them. Then the Eastern Conference playoff race might get interesting.
The second game yesterday was a rematch of the record-setting shootout from a week earlier, when Phoenix and Minnesota combined for 217 points in 40 minutes. As long as the camp day Lynx fans weren’t interested in defense, they were in for a treat.
It was a run-and-gun shootout in the first quarter, just as expected. Seimone Augustus was lighting the Mercury up – not that it’s exactly an unusual feeling for the Merc – but Phoenix’s trademark speedy offense was matching her shot for shot. Augustus had 10 in the quarter, but the Lynx had just a one-point lead at 29-28 to close the first.
Fouls and whistles slowed the pace in the second quarter, and the scoring eased up as a result. Minnesota were killing the Merc on the glass, but Phoenix were raining in threes from outside, so the score remained close until halftime. It was 51-50 Mercury at the break, but in my mind the edge was with Minnesota (and I swear that’s in my notes, not just made up after the fact). Phoenix were 7-11 from three-point range in the first half. In my experience, that’s the kind of thing that tends to even out across most basketball games, even when you’ve got ridiculous shooters like Penny Taylor and Diana Taurasi putting the ball up. The Lynx, on the other hand, had amassed their 50 points by creating easier shots closer to the rim, and beating up on the Mercury in the rebounding battle. Those things tend to continue throughout games.
Of course, when you come out of the locker room on fire, that helps too. The Lynx were thoroughly enjoying themselves against the Mercury’s defense, and an opening 16-6 run – featuring eight more points from Augustus – built a 66-57 lead for Minnesota. As the third quarter went on, not only were the Lynx hurting the Merc with their shooting, but Phoenix were hurting themselves with turnovers. Taking care of the ball has been a problem at times for the Mercury this year, and Minnesota were taking advantage of their steals by turning them into easy points at the other end. The lead was as high as 14 late in the third, and only a little help from the officials sending them to the line repeatedly got Phoenix back within 82-73 by the end of the quarter.
Much as Phoenix tried, they never quite managed to make it a contest in the fourth quarter. Some strange rotations from head coach Corey Gaines didn’t help – Taurasi coming out with 3:26 left in a nine-point game? Taylor resting for three of the last six minutes? Really? – but it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The Lynx have been so bad in so many fourth quarters this season that the nerves may have been jangling a little at 97-88 with just under three minutes remaining, but straight out of a Mercury timeout Temeka Johnson coughed up yet another awful turnover on a lazy pass to Kara Braxton. Lindsay Whalen stole the ball and fed Taj McWilliams-Franklin for a layup that ended any faint Mercury hopes. At that point Phoenix essentially quit. There was still time for a series of free throws and a DeWanna Bonner three from so far downtown she was practically in the stands, but Minnesota eased home for a 106-98 road victory.
How’s that for speedy revenge? They say it’s a dish best served cold, but it only took the Lynx a week after the Merc won in their house and it was over 100 degrees in Arizona. I bet it felt pretty good to Minnesota anyway. The central advantage that they have over Phoenix is that they’re mildly interested in playing some defense. While the Mercury are better than they used to be, they still don’t enjoy that end of the floor. The Lynx are ready and able to run with the Merc, and in games like this they’ve got the shooters and the scorers to keep pace. That little bit of extra defense created the gap. Augustus was 11-15 from the floor against Phoenix’s porous defense for 25 points, and every other Lynx starter was in double-digits as well. Cheryl Reeve’s bench even helped out a little in this one which is going to be crucial for her team in games against Phoenix, because they play at such a pace that the starting five need some rest. It’ll be especially important if they end up facing them in a best-of-three series in September. Candice Wiggins, Charde Houston and even Monica Wright in the brief minutes she received were all part of positive sequences for the Lynx. Nice way to head into the All-Star break.
As for the Mercury, I’m sure they won’t be too devastated about losing this one. They had won six in a row and ten of their last 11 after all, and I’m sure Gaines would’ve been delighted if you told him at the start of the year that his team would start out 10-5. This game did illustrate, however, what can happen when a team can score with them bucket for bucket. Taurasi had 24, Taylor 23, but they did indeed cool off from outside, going from that halftime level of 7-11 to 10-23 by the end of the game. The turnover total of 17 killed them as well. They keep proving that you can play fairly dismal defense and win games anyway, but you can’t throw in constantly giving the ball away as well. Not against teams as good as Minnesota who will make you pay.
In other news…
Brian Agler’s regular assistant with Seattle, Nancy Darsch, will be taking care of some personal business over the All-Star break, so San Antonio head coach Dan Hughes will be acting as his assistant for the game instead. Which is amusing, because Agler was Hughes’s assistant for a couple of years with the Silver Stars. Hope there won’t be any arguments over who gets to hold the clipboard.
Don’t forget that tomorrow is the official end of the first-half of the regular season, and that non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed once we pass that date. That’s probably part of why Tulsa made the Jones/Olajuwon switch today (not that they have any cap issues whatsoever), and might lead to another release or two tomorrow.
Chicago @ Indiana, 7pm ET
San Antonio @ Seattle, 10pm ET